May 15, 2018 / By Deresha Hayles
Editor's Note: The United Methodist Ecumenical Campus Ministry at Hendricks Chapel, Syracuse University applied for and received the Ercil Cady Grant last Fall and they put on a writing contest that was geared towards students of Black/African American and Native American descent. Deresha S. Hayles won the contest with the following essay.
“In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 5:16 NIV
If our hearts are the inner light source that keep us pushing towards the greater tomorrow that we can’t see, mine was shattered. Fallen from the depths of a burgeoning sorrow it barreled towards a crystalline sea of depression and splintered into a million pieces that would take me a million years to piece together again…at least that’s how it felt to me. I had always imagined that when it was time for me to go off to college that the radiant beam of joy that I kept stationed within me would still be there, sharing the love that I had found within myself with those around me. Yet here I was, eighteen years old and feeling utterly depleted of the inner hope that had consistently kept me going all my life. Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani. My God, the source of my burning hope and divine joy felt light years away from me. I grieved over the light that had left me and mourned the peace I thought I would never again see. My heart was not functioning as my lamp and I was struggling to stumble through my day to day. My God, My God, why have You forsaken me? Is this how Jesus felt on the cross? Stranded alone in the shadows, how was I to share my light with others when my light had been stripped away from me?
I came into Syracuse running from a reality I thought I was not strong enough to bear. Entering into my freshman year I felt utterly alone. Separated from those who had been supporting me through my despair, the days crept by ever so slowly, leaving me to sit in an ocean that felt determined to rise above me. I had many goals coming into the year, things like declaring a major in African American Studies while working towards medical school and creating a new friend group to build beautiful memories with. Although those goals were still on my mind, it all paled in comparison to finding a treasure that was proving to be more elusive than I ever thought it could be: emotional and spiritual security. God had always been my resting place whenever I needed to pull away from the world and dwell in a dreamy calmness. When life left me feeling shriveled up and void of my inner peace, God always poured that peace back into me. I have had “dry spells” before; moments where it felt as though a wall had gone up between God and I, blocking me from hearing His voice and my prayers from reaching Him. Yet for some reason this was different. God felt further and more distant than ever and the wall that was between us was insurmountable. I had every desire in me to make my time in Syracuse one laden with memories I could look back on with a smile, yet how was I to do so when my happiness was continually slipping through my fingers? Unsure of what I needed and where I needed to go to find it, I set my sights first on ground that looked seemingly familiar to me: Syracuse’s own Black Celestial Choral Ensemble.
On the day of tryouts, I tentatively crept up the steps to Hendricks Chapel and tiptoed my way to the nearest bathroom I could find. The inside of my chest felt like a sauna yet my throat felt as dry as the Sahara. Uncertain whether He would hear me, I let a small prayer slip from my lips and fall into the space around me. If You are listening and You want me to be in this group, please, give me some form of a sign. I stood in the empty bathroom, waiting for something like a glorious ray of light to fall and fill the room or hear a voice whisper, “You’re in the right place.” Even though I had never heard Him in those ways before, I stood anxiously waiting for anything to prove that He loved me and was still with me.
On the verge of tears and body trembling, I inched my way up to the bathroom sinks to splash cool water on my face. I hovered dejectedly in front of the mirror, tears mid fall when the door opened and a cheerful voice greeted me.
“Hi! I felt compelled to come in here because I saw you walk in here looking a bit nervous. Are you here for the auditions?”
What came after that was a blur of a five-minute audition that felt like an eternity, never-ending hugs, and an ocean full of hellos. I walked back to my room feeling more accomplished than I had in a long time. Whether or not I made it into the choir, I knew that God had heard me. There was a crack in the wall of Jericho that was blocking me from my bliss and it felt like there was hope in the wall tumbling down after all.
Two days later, I got an email saying that I was accepted into BCCE. That first rehearsal was the first of many that would help me to piece together not just the Deresha I used to be, but the Deresha I wanted to be. As we stood together in Hendricks’ hallowed halls, hands clasped and voices echoing through the sanctuary, I laid down the crosses that had been nailed to my shoulders. I had an altar on which I could lay my sorrows and a pinnacle from which I could reach out and touch God’s hands. The dark hole I was in wasn’t as lonely and when I looked up above me, the glowering night appeared to have golden streaks within it. I was not alone. I was not abandoned. There in that space with my fellow choir members, it was okay for me not to be okay. I did not have the answers nor the blueprint as to how I’d get out of my depression, but I was no longer as afraid of the fumbling process I was on in order to get back to reality. Through the love that they showed me and the encouraging words they spoke into my life, they acted as a conductor that helped me feel the love of God that I had been missing.
It slowly started to dawn upon me that if life was a mural, I had been looking for God purely from afar. I had not been stopping and taking the time to admire the intricate details of each composite part of the overall design, seeking Him and cherishing Him in the seemingly small things in this new part of my life. Depression was still weighing heavily on me, but He had not left me alone with no ammunition against it. The fuel to my fire was living in the interactions I carried with those around me. As I searched to find the reassurance I was missing, God found me through the people who embraced me. His love touched me through the scriptures they shared with me. I felt His presence as we would lift up our voices in harmony and sing from the deepest wells within us. He was our life source who had and would do great things in our lives. As I looked around our semi-circle, I saw the faces of those who, like me, may have gone through an unbearable pain that they couldn’t shake off on their own, but they were slowly healing from that pain with each other’s help. I found beauty in my brokenness. Crouched over in the depths of my despair, surrounded by utter darkness is when my truth found me. It was the people who were surrounding me who found the pieces of my light that I was missing and restored them onto me. As I mended my light from my heart they lent me their own, engulfing me in the love I thought I was numb to.
I know now that even in the darkest nights when I feel lower than low, I am not invisible. My light might dim and I might sway in the ferocity of the night’s wind, but the entity that I am will never be extinguished for I am a child of He who loves me until the end of time. When I was at my weakest, He sent others in my life to lift me up and help me get back on the path to a greater me— a better me. Since being at Syracuse University and meeting the people that I have, I have been reassured that God is not just within the big things in life. His presence is living and breathing within the things we take for granted. He’s in the smiles we share in the mornings. He’s in the hugs we share when we’re excited. He’s in the tears we shed when we’re vulnerable and the anger we feel when we’re tired of the pain in this world. He’s in everything, and that means He’s even in me: broken, unbroken, and all.